Art from the Edo Period: The Origins of Manga

Few people know that manga, the Japanese version of the comic book, has quite a long history. In fact, the literary form is closer to art than some might like to admit. (Including my family, annoyed at me when I was young for spending all my allowance on these comic books – sorry!)
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Manga – from Flickr cc Sjors Provoost[/caption]
Let us take a trip back in time to when Kyoto was still the capital of Japan and Tokyo was known as Edo (and, of course, people did not have televisions, computers or smartphones to entertain them). Compared to other countries, literacy in Japan during the Edo period (around 1600-1868) was high. Not just an upper-class phenomenon, even farmers, craftsmen, and their wives knew how to read and write. Their letters were a simplified version of modern Chinese pictograms. This written language was an early form of today’s Japanese phonetic hiragana and katakana alphabets. All thanks to an affordable and progressive national school system. In private terakoya, or "temple schools", both boys and girls learned to read, write, and perform basic math.
A standard source of entertainment at the time were little softcover booklets called kusazoshi. Each booklet was about 10 pages long. The pages featured large woodblock print illustrations and brief explanatory text or dialog. In Japanese art history, kusazoshi mark the beginning of the synergy of images and words. Such collaboration is still prevalent in everyday Japanese life. You can easily spot this on television. In Japanese news and TV shows, you will find subtitles along with text blocks on either side of the picture. They contain keywords that explain the scene, emphasize a statement, or remind the audience of the topic.
Kusazoshi Booklets – NHK (see source details below)
Kusazoshi, works of popular fiction, were color-coded by genre. The topics ranged from scary ghost stories and satire pieces (kibyoshi, “yellow covers”) and children’s stories (akahon, “red books”) to works for more sophisticated readers (aohon, “blue books”) and reproductions of kabuki plays (kurohon, “black books”). The similarities to manga are striking. Just like the kusazoshi, manga span an array of genres. The images dominate the page and text is usually kept short, often only present as dialog. Even the artistic style stayed the same. Today's Manga pages look like woodblock prints with their hard black lines and crisp white spaces.
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Pages from a Kibyoshi – Seigle (see source details below)[/caption]
Printed materials became more widespread after the printing press was introduced to Japan in 1590. Still, printing was expensive and many commoners could not afford to buy kusazoshi.  In one solution called kashihon-ya (“rental bookshop”) in Japanese, clever entrepreneurs bought several copies of the newest kusazoshi, then lent them out for a small fee. The comic books were so popular and fun to read that people did not mind renting second-hand copies. This idea worked so well that the kashihon-ya became literal walking libraries: roaming the streets with big boxes full of booklets on their backs whenever a new release was available.
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NHK (see source details below)[/caption]
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NHK (see source details below)[/caption]
Edo-period art before 1787-1793 exhibits similar aesthetics and techniques to works after this period but it differs greatly in content. This timespan marks the implementation of the so-called Kansei reforms (kansei no kaikaku). The reforms were a series of regulations that censored every published piece of art. Affected were paintings, poems, and kusazoshi. The government punished provocative artists with house arrest and defamation. In response, some artists abandoned their craft and became scholars or teachers. Others continued writing and painting with milder themes. In certain tragic cases, the penalized artist committed suicide.
Surprisingly, popular fiction before the Kansei reforms was bold and often controversial. Many pieces were critical of the shortcomings of social conditions, political measures, and public figures. Parodies and humorous depictions masked these themes. But their meanings and harsh critique were obvious to readers. In Western media, the Japanese are often depicted as stereotypically hard-working, placid and dutiful. But the daring topics of pre-Kansei kusazoshi reveal an aspect of the Japanese national character hardly anyone outside of Japan would imagine even existed. Among modern manga artists, some have returned to their kusazoshi daring roots. They challenge traditional gender roles and empower women. Some cover themes like open homosexuality, homelessness, poverty, and domestic abuse.
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Kern (see source details below)[/caption]
Are you still doubting the cultural and artful origin of Japanese manga? Then please take a look at a page from a kusazoshi next to a page from a modern manga. I am sure you will agree that they are old and new versions of the same aesthetic. As a Japanologist and a fan of Japanese culture, observing the reach of this artform from so long ago into the present is endlessly fascinating.
Looking for Japanese art and culture? Check out these trips on ODIGO!
Kern, Adam L.: Manga from the Floating World. Comicbook Culture and the kibyōshi of Edo Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.
May, Ekkehard: Die Kommerzialisierung der japanischen Literatur in der späten Edo-Zeit (1750-1868). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.
NHK Data Jōhōbu: Visual Hyakka Edo Jijō – Bunka-hen. Tōkyō: Yūzankaku, 1992.
Seigle, Cecilia Segawa: Yoshiwara. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Jennifer Weiss